The Five False Assumptions Behind Poll-Skewing

For poll-skewing to be effective, all five of the following hidden assumptions about human psychology must be true:


• When a person sees that his team is in second place, he gives up and stops fighting.

Perhaps I'm different from everyone else on Earth. Maybe I've got grit that everyone else lacks. But when I see myself behind in an ongoing competition, I redouble my efforts in an attempt to win.

But I don't really think I'm different at all. I think most people react exactly as I do. In fact, personnel managers often rely on this common behavioral trait to motivate employees by pitting them against each other and then implying to each one that if only he tried a little bit harder he would surpass all the other employees and win the promotion. The end result is that each employee, thinking his promotion is in danger, works more energetically to achieve hoped-for victory.

Here's an example. Let's just say that in some battleground state Obama and Romney are essentially tied in the raw polling data, but in an attempt to "depress the vote" among Romney supporters the media and partisan pollsters intentionally skew the results and announce that Obama is actually up by three points. What would be the group psychology consequence of this false announcement?

The Obama partisans assume that Romney supporters will see the false Romney-is-losing poll results, get discouraged, and say to themselves, "Gee, looks like Romney is going to lose. There's no point in voting for him. I give up. I'm not going to vote on election day." And then Obama really would win by three points.

Now to me, that would be a bizarre and unlikely reaction. I would assume the exact opposite — that the Romney supporters would become unnecessarily alarmed at such a poll result and as a consequence would fight harder for their candidate: "Gee, Romney is trailing at the polls: I'd better go volunteer at the campaign office and make sure all my fellow Republicans vote with me on election day to help Romney pass Obama at the finish line." And the consequence would be that Romney won by three points.

So: We have two competing assumptions, one (held by most Democratic strategists) that skewed poll results will discourage opposition voters, and one (held by me) that skewed poll results will energize opposition voters.

Surely, there is some evidence, some study, supporting one assumption over the other — right? Well, as far as I can tell, no, there isn't. For this entire campaign season I've searched in vain for some kind of verification that the unquestioned assumptions underlying the "depress the vote" strategy are even true. But no one's ever done such a study [Note: see update below], and I doubt any strategists have ever spent two seconds questioning their assumptions about mass psychology.

And how would such a study be conducted? It's not like a pollster can ask voters, "If your favorite candidate was actually ahead in popularity, but the only way you could know this fact was from the results of polls, and if then a pollster like me intentionally lied and told you that your candidate was actually losing, would the deception work on you and cause you to become discouraged and not vote at all?" I'd imagine that the pollster would get a punch in the nose rather than a well-reasoned answer.

But if there's no data to support the assumptions behind the "depress the vote" strategy, then who's to say whether the assumption is correct? Simply because more people have that assumption? And how do we prove that? Do we take a poll of people about their group psychology assumptions? "Do you assume that falsely distorted poll results will depress votes for a candidate or energize his supporters?" And what if those poll results are themselves skewed? Where does it end?

And so we come to an astonishing conclusion: That thousands of campaign strategists for decades have been operating on an assumption that has never been confirmed, and that for all anyone knows the exact opposite could be true — that poll results skewed against a candidate only end up energizing his supporters and increasing his final vote tally.